Brigadier General Joseph's Kershaw's Brigade was one of the most stable in the army. General Milledge Bonham initially commanded it during the summer and fall of 1861, but when he resigned in January 1862, the unit passed to Joseph Kershaw of the 2nd South Carolina. The brigade had seen action on many battlefields. During the Seven Days campaign, the brigade had opened the fight at Savage Station, and a few days later, charged up Malvern Hill in what amounted to a suicide mission. The brigade helped captured Maryland Heights overlooking Harper's Ferry during the Maryland campaign, thus sealing the town's fate, and it performed admirably at the battle of Sharpsburg. The brigade's finest hour was at the battle of Fredericksburg, where it took position behind the stone wall, and, with Cobb's (later Semmes's) Brigade, beat back charge after charge.
General Joseph Kershaw was considered by many to be among Lee's finest brigadiers. An influential South Carolina attorney before the war, Kershaw had fought in the Mexican War and was a member of the South Carolina legislature that voted to seced from the Union. Orphaned at the age of seven, he gained his station through hard work and effective performance. His bravery was unquestioned. At Fredericksburg his insistence on remaining on his horse earned the accolades of both friend and foe.
Kershaw's men were proud to be a part of Lee's invading army. A veteran unit, it had fought in all of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia. Corporal Tally Simpson of the 3rd South Carolina wrote home, "our army is strong and in fine spirits, and has the most implicit confidence in Genl Lee." He was less enthusiastic about the quantity of food available, writing that "I ate my day's rations at one mouthful-not one meal, but one mouthful. What do you think of that?" Another soldier wrote that "we had to live on one pound of flour to the man for four days. I had to eat wheat. I would take it and Boil it in a cup and salt it and then eat it and it was good at least it [was] good to a hungry man." This soldier also pointed out another shortcoming. "I am Bare Footed-havent [sic] got a Shoe to my name." Poor food and deteriorating shoes made the long marches especially difficult.
Being so far from home, the men paid close attention to the women. An unidentified member of the 2nd South Carolina wrote hom that Pennsylvania "has [some] of the finest land in it is the world and some of the ugliest women that I ever saw. The are mosly Dutch." Simpson (3rd South Carolina) agreed. "I saw a great many young ladies, but noe very pretty. In fact I have not seen a really pretty girl since I have been in Penn." He wrote hom that "the women are what you would call the flat-headed dutch, while gals are ugly, broad-mouthed specimens of humanity." But he did find them "always neat and clean and very industrious." Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Gaillard of the 2nd South Carolina observed that many of the women and girls wore U.S. Flags on their smocks, and many "held their noses and made faces" at the Southern soldiers.
Since many of the men were from rural parts of South Carolina, they were keenly interested in the countryside. Simpson wrote that the "country is very thickly settled...each farmer, wheter rich or poor, has a fine barn or granary as large [as]...the hotels in Pendleton [S.C]." He also found, "it strange to see no negros [sic]." A soldier from the 2nd South Carolina wrote, "they have the finest houses you ever saw. All made of Brick and there is a house every half mile.
Simpson found the citizens they passed to be "frightened almost to death. They won't take our money, but for fear that our boys will kill them, they give away what they can spare." The soldiers, Simpson wrote, "harbor a terrific spirit of revenge and steal and pillage in the most sinful manner." Soldiers, like Simpson, with an upper-class upbringing, could not bring themselves to plunder, but were powerless to stop it.
The men reached Chambersburg on June 27 and remained in the vicinity through June 30, when the march continued to Fayetteville. Any hopes of quickly reaching the battlefield on July 1 were quickly dashed, as Anderson's and Johnson's Divisions were ahead of them, as were the Second Corps's wagon trains. The men were ordered to cook three days' rations while waiting. The column reformed in the road at 4:00 PM, and marched to within two miles of Gettysburg, halting at about midnight. The men could hear the distant sound of cannon fire during parts of the march, and Captain Pulliam of the 2nd South Carolina exclaimed, "Boys, that sounds familiar," as the column hurried for the night near a large house filled with the wounded of Hill's Third Corps.
Kershaw was told that night that he was to lead McLaw's column, which was to leave at about 4:00 AM on July 2. The time came and went, and it was not until sunrise that the column got under way. Kershaw was ordered to halt at the road leading to Black Horse Tavern. The men rested there until noon to begin the infamous march to the right, where Longstreet attempted to shield his two divisions from the view of the enemy on Little Round Top. The men watched as Longstreet and McLaws rode forward to reconnoiter, then returned, "both manifested considerable irritations," according to Kershaw. A soldier in the 3rd South Carolina described McLaws's language as veing very "raw," nothing that their division commander was "saying things I would not like my grandson to repeat."
After completingthe circuitous march, Kershaw deployed his brigade behind a stone wall on Seminary Ridge shortly after 3:00 PM. The South Carolinians could see General Longstreet and his staff up in front of them, observing the Federal position with their binoculars. The men marveled that their commander never flinched despite the intense artillery fire that this group attracted. Upon returning, Longstreet gave the order directly to Kershaw. He recalled that they were to "advance my brigade and attack enemy at that point [Peach Orchard], turnn his flank, and extend along the crossroad, with my left resting on Emmistburg Road." After the attack commenced, Kershaw was to "sweep down the enemy's line in a direction perpendicular to our then line of battle." This action would hit the supposedly vulnerable Federal left flank. A battery arrived and took position along Millerstown Road, parallel to Kershaw's line of attack. With his men in position, Kershaw had a chance to scrutinize the enemy's position. He did not like what he saw. "An advanced line occupied the Peach Orchard, heavily supported by artillery...the intervening ground was occupied by open fields, interspersed and divided by stone walls. The position here seemed almost impregnable." Even if he were successful in capturing the Peach Orchard, his right and rear would be exposed to a deadly fire from other parts of the Federal line. Kershaw communicated these concerns to General McLaws, who responded that Hood's Division would clean out the Federals on his right, and Barksdale's brigade would hit the line on his left. Behind him was Semmes's Georgia Brigade, ready to give support when needed.
At 4:00 PM Kershaw was told to commence the attack when he heard the signal from Cabell's Battallion. This would take the form of three individual guns firing sequentially. To ensure that all of his regiments stepped off at the same time, Kershaw conveyed this order to each commanding officer. The would all be expected to commence their attack without receiving orders from their commanding officer. The brigade was deployed from left to right as 8th South Carolina-3rd South Carolina Battalion-2nd South Carolina-3rd South Carolina-7th South Carolina. The 15th South Carolina was deployed farther to the right, where it supported Cabell's artillery.
The men could hear the sounds of battle on their right and knew that Hood's men were enaging the enemy. Suddenly, at about 5:00 PM, three cannon shots rang out, and Kershaw's men leaped to their feet and began their charge. Kershaw proudly wrote after the war that his men moved forward "with great steadiness and precision, followed by Semmes with equal promptness." Because of the numerous obstructions, Kershaw and his officers advanced on foot. During the initial phases of the attack, at least until the men reached Emmitsburg Road, General Longstreet accompanied Kershaw. As Longstreet wished him well and began his journey back to Seminary Ridge, Kershaw was stunned to hear Barksdale's drummers beating assembly. He had expected the Mississippians to advance at the same time on his left, but now he knew that his left would be "squarely presented to the heavy force of infantry and artillery at and in rear of Peach Orchard."
This caused Kershaw to change his plans. He had originally intended to hit Stony Hill in front of him, then wheel around and hit the Peach Orchard in the flank. Now knowing that there would be nothing to distract the Federal artillerymen from raking his lines, Kershaw decided to send the left side of his line, composed of the 8th South Carolina, 3rd South Carolina Battalion, and 2nd South Carolina, against the Federal batteries in the Peach Orchard. The right side of his brigade continued its march toward Stony Hill. Kershaw noted that prior to making this change, the regiments advanced "majestically across the field...with the steadiness of troops on parade." The line was raked with a sever artillery fire which, in the words of Kershaw, "rendered it difficult to retain the line in good order." Lieutenant Alex McNeill of the 2nd South Carolina called this "the most terrible fire to which they ever were exposed."
Private John Coxe of the 2nd South Carolina would never forget the "deathly surging sounds of those little black balls as they flew by us, through us, between our legs, and over us!" Private William Shumate of the same regiment graphically described what it was like to charge across an open field in the face of massed federal cannon fire:
Kershaw's Brigade moved . . . in perfect order
and with the precision of a brigade drill,
while upon my right and left comrades were
stricken down by grape and canister which went
crashing through our ranks. It did seem to me
that none could escape. My face was fanned
time and again by the deadly missles. We had
arrived within one hundred yards of the battery
and had not fired a shot. The artillerists were
limbering up their pieces to retire.
To the right of the 2nd South Carolina, the 3rd South Carolina and the 7th South Carolina passed on either side of the Rose farm buildings, causing the two regiments to overlap. Seeing this development, Kershaw ordered the 7th South Carolina to move to the right to correct the alignment. This order caused many casualties in the 2nd South Carolina, which had been steadily advancing against the Federal artillery in the Peach Orchard. The men knew that it would take but a few more minutes to reach their objective. However, an unknown officer frm the 2nd South Carolina, seeing a sister regiment move to the right, ordered his men to conform to this movement. Writing slightly tongue and cheek, Private W. Johnson of the regiment wrote, "guess they thought we had had enough sight-seeing from the front, and new we were to have a side view." According to Private Shumate, the men were stunned when they heard the order, "true to our sense of duty we immediately obeyed the command." The Federal gunners were also stunned, but it was for a different reason. In the process of abandoning their positions, they stopped, loaded their guns, and poured a destructive fire into the ranks of the almost helpless South Carolinians. Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard wrote that "we were in ten minutes or less, terribly butchered. . .I saw half a dozen at a time knocked up and flung to the ground like trifles. . . there were familiar forms and faces with parts of thier heads shot away, legs shattered, arms torn off, etc."
The survivors of the 2nd South Carolina found a depression and quickly sought shelter there from the murderous hail of canister. However, a Federal cannon positioned to fire into it, killing and wounding many more South Carolinans. The losses became less severe when the men lay down, and some enterprising souls fired at the artillerymen to silence the deadly gun.
While the left regiments were being slaughtered, the right wing had driven back the Union line and reached Stony Hill between the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield, where they opened fire on the Federal batteries in the Peach Orchard. Looking to his left, Kershaw was relieved to see Barksdale's men appearing, and with his own 8th South Carolina and 3rd South Carolina Battalion, moving to engage the enemy in the Peach Orchard. The results were better than expected. While the Mississippians hit Graham's Brigade (Humphrey's Division, III Corps) head on from the west, the two South Carolina units hit them from the south, causing the line to crumble. Kershaw's anger with General Barksdale was evident in his official report: "this brigade [Barksdale's] then moved so far to the left as no longer to afford me any assistance.
Kershaw's angst was compounded when his right wing was assailed by Zook's Brigade and the Irish Brigade (Caldwell's Division, II Corps) as it took position on Stony Hill. Kershaw's two regiments, numbering eight hundred men, were up against almost double their number. So sudden was this attack that the South Carolinians were not able to take up sound defensive positions. While Zook's Brigade engaged the two regiments in their front, part of the Irish Brigade hit the 7th South Carolina on its right flank. A resourceful Kershaw immediately undertook three activities to bolster his precarious position: he ordered his right flank refused; he ordered his 15th South Carolina, which was over to the right supporting Cabell's artillery battalion, to move quickly to the aid of his beleaguered line; and he loped back to find General Semmes to request immediate assistance. Semmes had been wounded just before Kershaw reached him, but was lucid enough to order his successor, Major William Gist, to move the brigade forward to the South Carolinian's assistance by plugging the gap between the latter and Anderson's Brigade. During this action the 3rd South Carolina's flag was attracting a hot fire. Four color guards had already been shot down, causing the men near the flag to yell, "Lower the colors, down the flag." The color bearer, in an act of defiance against his own comrades, waved the flag even more forcefully and yelled out "this flag never goes down until I am down." The flag did not go down on this day.
As the 7th South Carolina exchanged volleys with the Irish Brigade at a distance of less than two hundred yards, one of Semme's regiments, probably the 50th Georgia, advanced at a double-quick pace and opened fire on the enemy. A gap of about a hundred yards still existed between the right of the 7th South Carolina and the left of the 50th Georgia, which the veterans of the Irish Brigade were quick to exploit. According to Kershaw, the two sides exchanged fire from less than thirty paces, and the right of the 7th South Carolina was refused even more, until, in the words of Kershaw, "the two wings of the regiment were nearly doubled on each other." The 15th South Carolina arrived shortly thereafter, and found that parts of Semmes's Brigade prevented it from linking up with the rest of its brigade. For some reason, Kershaw did not bring it around the rear of Semmes's Brigade to plug the game in the line. Instead, it fought seperately from its sister units. Kershaw admitted after the war that the "position of the 15th Regiment [was] wholly unknown to me."
Over on Kershaw's left, the combined charge of Barksdale's Brigade, the 8th South Carolina, and at least part of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion had forced the Federal batteries from their positions in the Peach Orchard. This relieved the 2nd South Carolina from the deadly enemy artillery fire it was receiving and which had caused the regiment to lose over 40% of its men-the highest losses in the brigade. Seeing that the 2nd South Carolina was now able to rise, Kershaw quickly ordered it to the rescue of his beleaguered right flank. Almost immediately after giving this order, the pressure on the 7th South Carolina was so great that it finally broke, and Kershaw was ordered its commanding officer, Colonel D. Wyatt Aiken, to refomr it at a stone wall, two hundred yards to his right, in the rear of the Rose farm. Aiken described the movement as being made with "considerable confusion, though no demoralization." Parts of the 50th Georgia were also forced back, leaving only the 3rd South Carolina on Stony Hill, which was now under a furious attack on its front and right flank by Zook's Brigade and the Irish Brigade. Like the 7th South Carolina before it, its right flank was refused to face the enemy on two fronts. To complicate mattes even further, some soldiers from the 50th Gerogia had become mingled with the 3rd South Carolina, reducing the officers' ability to direct their men competently. General Kershaw later wrote that "amid rocks and trees, within a few feet of each other, these brave men, Confederates and Federals, maintained a desperate conflict." Realizing that the 3rd South Carolina was in danger of being cut off and captured en masse, Kersahw reluctantly ordered it back to the Rose farm as well.
A dejected Kershaw followed his defeated men back to the buildings. With Semmes's Brigade also defeated and Barksdale's moving north, the situation looked grim. As Kershaw emerged from the woods, he was overjoyed to see General William Wofford leading his Georgia brigade into battle on the left. Private John Coxe of the 2nd South Carolina described it as "an almost perfect Confederate line of battle just entering the woods, hotly engaging and driving the Federal infantry." Wofford rode up to the 2nd South Carolina and asked its men to join him. Thus, while the 7th and 3rd South Carolinians assumed defensive positions at the Rose farm against the still advancing Federal troops, Wofford, with Kershaw's left wing, composed of the 8th South Carolina, 3rd South Carolina battalion, and 2nd South Carolina, hit Stony Hill, which was occupied by Zook's Brigade. The 15th South Carolina, and some of Semmes's regiments, also attacked the Irish Brigade at this time. Before long, exhausted Federal soldiers from both brigades were streaming to the rear.
As the two Federal brigades pulled out, Sweitzer's Brigade was ill advisely returned to the Wheatfield on stem the Confederate drive. It was a major blunder, resulting in the near destruction of the brigade, as it was hit by Anderson's Brigade, the 3rd South Carolina battalion, 8th South Carolina, 2nd South Carolina, 15th South Carolina, and assortd regiments from Semmes's Brigade. Coxe (2nd South Carolina) noted that as the men rushed forward to enage the Federal troops, a "tremendous Rebel yell went up from our powdered-choked throats." Kershaw's men continued fighting hard here, capturing two Federal flags in the process. The commander of the 4th Michigan fought vailiantly to prevent his flag's capture. A newspaper account written shortly after the battle accurately described what occurred. "A Federal officer attempted to use his sword, which one of the men wrenched from his grasp and thrust his bayonet into him." Colonel Harrison Jeffords lost both his flag and his life in the process. Still another Federal brigade, Burbank's, ventured into the Wheatfield, and it too was attacked by Kershaw's, Semmes's Anderson's, and Wofford'd Brigades, and forced to retire. With the defeat of Sweitzer's and Burbank's Brigades, the now exhausted Confederate units continued their advance toward Little Round Top.
Darkness was now descending on the battlefield, and the men were ordered to break off the assault. Few men from Kershaw's Brigade described the attack of the Pennsylvania Reserves (V Corps) and Wheaton's Brigade (Shaler's Division, VI Corps). As Johnson (2nd South Carolina) approached Little Round Top, he saw "several lines of battle posted on the hillside so that they could shoot over the heads of the men in front. We got close up and kept the men who wer attempting to fire some guns which were posted there thinned out so that they could not do much. But the lines of battle fired into us and many of our troops fell . . . the men began to fall back . . . we retreated in good order, loading and firing on the Yanks. We reached the edge of a woods and here we made a stand" Colonel Gaillard of the same regiment recalled that the bullets "literally came down upon us as thick as hailstones."
Kershaw assembled his brigade and Semmes's behind a stone wall at the Rose farm. Here the men built fires and rummaged through the Federal haversacksfor food. Later that night, the brigade moved to the left to the Peach Orchard, which the unit's left wing had helped clear earlier in the evening. About noon on July 3, Kershaw was ordered to reoccupy the position near the Rose farm. Later that afternoon, Longstreet ordered Kershaw to the right, to connect with the right of Hood's Division, parts of which were under attack by Farsnworth's Brigade of cavalry.
One of the finest brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia, Kershaw's Brigade met mixed success at Gettysburg. When the brigade cooperated with others, the results were positive, at it helped clear the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard of Federal troops. However, such was not the case on the right of the line, where, possibly because of the early wounding of Semmes, there was little cooperation. It was a very confused evening for Kershaw, as he admitted in his official report that his brigade was so scattered that he lost touch with much of it. For example, he did not know the location of the 15th South Carolina.